By Tracy Hanes

Mind and body design practices are alive and well.

They are embracing forest bathing and farm-to-table dining. They are wearing fitness trackers, meditating more, consuming less meat and more plants. Canadians’ growing preoccupation with their mental and physical well-being is prompting some Ontario builders to respond, whether it’s by adding biophilic design elements or pursuing certifications such as WELL for their projects.

IBI’s Cooper’s Lookout, a 35 storey condo set alone the False Creek Seawall that maximizes daylight and views

“The trend until a few years ago was the effects of the building on the environment and how we impact the environment,” says Bita Ardabili, associate manager of architecture for the IBI Group’s Vancouver office, a LEED and WELL Accredited Professional and Fitwel ambassador. “Now there’s a focus on occupants and how buildings affect their health and wellness. We’ve seen more and more standards related to this coming out.

IBI’s The Spot, a 13 storey mixed-use building featuring a rooftop garden

Biophilia means love of nature and focuses on humans’ attraction to it. This connection to nature has become increasingly important to health and well-being in built environments. Biophilic design strives to create that connection indoors through use of plants, views of nature, natural light and ventilation, water features and natural materials. It takes a multi-sensory approach by appealing to sight, sound, touch and smell, and research has shown it can have a profound influence on our health and productivity. Studies have found it reduces patients’ pain and shortens stays in healthcare facilities.

Fitwel is a point-based health and wellness standard, less arduous than WELL, that the Center for Disease Control in the U.S. helped develop. It evaluates the elements that go into a building’s design to create a healthy environment with more than 50 strategies, such as limiting airborne pollutants. The Covid-19 crisis may prompt more builders to consider WELL or Fitwel, with enhanced filtration and ventilation systems that reduce pollutants and possible pathogens, a defined regime for cleaning and sanitizing buildings, and adding soothing features such as natural light, greenery and water to help calm residents when life gets stressful. 

Minto Communities, a long-time innovator in high-performance building, plans to pursue WELL certification for its future condo buildings, where possible, starting with 123 Portland and The Saint in Toronto. The Saint will feature biophilic aspects such as potted plants, stone and charred wood in its Japanese-inspired lobby to subconsciously connect people to nature. Its Wellness Centre will have a communal rain chromotherapy room with an infrared sauna and a private spa room with individual soaking tubs. There will be a meditation room with a salt rock wall, stargazing and dark meditation room and private meditation room. An open-air Zen garden and treatment rooms for massage, etc., will also be among the amenities, while the gym, with weights, cardio and cross-fit equipment, spinning and yoga/Pilates rooms, is simply called the Health Centre.

Hummingbird’s passive house in Etobicoke.

Lobby at Minto’s The Saint.

“I think what stood out to us as we looked at the market is that the younger generation is becoming interested in living healthier lifestyles, and the older generation is retiring and becoming more careful about their health,” says Roya Khaleeli, Minto’s Sustainability Manager. “Those two pieces added to our interest in pursuing the wellness piece.”

“A shift has happened over the last few years but it has become more overt,” adds Matthew Brown, Director of Product Development for Minto. He says the trend to healthy eating, as well as the renewed interest in mediation and yoga, are indicators of people’s renewed emphasis on wellness.

While Minto does LEED-certify its buildings and that standard has components that improve indoor air quality, Khaleeli says WELL’s air and water quality testing and other requirements “take certain concepts to a new level of detail.”

For example, windows in bedrooms and living rooms must be within a certain size range to balance sufficient daylight, energy performance and thermal comfort, and there are specifics about the maximum number of people who can access gym equipment simultaneously, as well as the ratio of the cardiorespiratory versus muscle-strengthening equipment mix.

Tridel’s Innovation Suite

“A lot of the standards demonstrate what the industry best practice is in different areas,” says Khaleeli. “LEED pushed the envelope on where to take energy efficiency and a number of environmentally focused building features, but WELL is moving best practices forward, founded on how buildings impact people’s different body systems, such as respiratory, cardiovascular, muscular and digestive.”

“It seems like the next logical step in our sustainability progress after energy efficiency and reducing our impact on climate change,” notes Brown. “We like LEED certification and we want to continue to innovative and improve the quality of product for those who will live in our buildings. Standards such as WELL and Fitwel are complementary to how we have been building, allowing us to create a more wellness-focused environment.”

Suite Sensations

Tridel’s Innovation Suite – the master bedroom includes glass panels that can alternate from opaque to clear to bring in natural light and views over Lake Ontario

Condo builder Tridel is exploring the role of technology with everyday living in its Innovation Suite at Ten York, but in addition to a host of forward-looking features and functions activated by voice, smartphone or touchpad, it incorporates biophilic design concepts. The suite “represents the incredible possibilities that occur when design and technology meet,” says Stella Salvador, Tridel’s principal interior designer. The suite design is minimalist, modern and sophisticated, with the goal to inspire wellness. The expansive floor-to-ceiling windows, with motorized blinds and master bedroom glass panels that switch from opaque to clear, bring in plenty of natural light and provide connection to nature with spectacular views of Lake Ontario and Centre Island. Stone countertops and wood panelling bring nature indoors, and the Pure Genius wooden herringbone floors by Lauzon are coated in light- and motion-activated titanium oxide that filters and cleans air in the suite.

Tridel’s Innovation Suite – master closet

Low-rise builders are also taking note of the wellness trend. Oakville custom builder Hummingbird Hill Homes builds Net Zero-, Passive House- and WELL-certified homes and chose to specialize in sustainable and healthy homes as a way to differentiate itself. 

“An interest in the environmental aspect and what sustainability meant to us as home builders led us to Passive House, the gold standard of sustainability as it relates to different programs such as LEED and Net Zero,” says CEO and founder Aaron Miller. “We don’t do many Passive House-certified homes, but it allows us to dig deep and be on top of the building science related to sustainability.” Passive House indirectly addresses health and wellness, he says, through ventilation that provides superior air quality and enhanced insulation, sealing and triple-glazed windows that cut out exterior noise.

When he talked about sustainability with clients, Miller found those conversations “very transactional” and while people wanted to do the right thing, it was only if they didn’t have to sacrifice things important to them, such as aesthetics (hardwood floors, stone countertops, etc).

Miller discovered when he talked about making their new homes healthy, the conversations became “more emotional” and he’s found talking about health and relating the five senses has resounded with clients.

“We use building science and relate it to the senses,” he says. “We talk about optimizing comfort, sleep and productivity for those who live in the environment. We explain if you build a home with a tight envelope, it can make a difference to indoor air quality and what it means to have clean, purified air. We talk about sound and acoustical privacy and the impact on stress and sleep. We transitioned the conversation and made it more meaningful.”

Hummingbird Hill puts a lot of focus on acoustic privacy and utilizes acoustic wall panels, Silent FX drywall and offset studs to separate key rooms. On exterior walls, the builder uses the Blu Frog panellization system and continuous exterior insulation. They aim for air changes below 1.5 on every build and use sensors and an app to continually track PM2.5, PM10, VOCs, ozone and CO2. When air purity drops below an acceptable level, an air filtration system automatically kicks in.

Hummingbird Hill also offers living walls as an option, a biophilic design element that provides a calming effect with plants that can help to purify the air. Not every client goes for the feature and the ones who do typically want the living-green aesthetic but not herb or vegetable plants.

“Mechanical systems can be designed to pull air through a live wall,” Miller explains. “A lot of toxins in air get trapped in the root system and can be biofiltered. This relates to indoor air quality and smell and our need to reconnect with nature.” 

While sustainability/health features have unfortunately “gotten a bad rap” that’s resulted in consumers thinking they are far more expensive than a standard build, Miller says if they are integrated at an early stage of the design process to optimize cost, it can cost less than 5% more to build than a typical new house.

Miller says his company is WELL AP (Accredited Professional) certified and wants to blaze trails related to healthy building. “However, it’s not an easy upsell, and to do it properly, it has to be part of your culture,” he says. 

Not a Premium

Brown says Minto’s WELL-certified buildings may be priced comparably to its competitors in a particular neighbourhood. “We have to be able to find a way of delivering our buildings while still remaining competitive, and we have the people and processes in place to do that.”

He also believes WELL may present a market advantage. “Our approach, by having certification with third-party validation, is proof that what we’re telling you about our buildings is true. In the sales pitch, we’re connecting individual attributes that will resonate with people, such as health and well-being. There’s improved water filtration so you don’t have to buy bottled water. We use a water-based cleaning system for the building, so you don’t have to worry about chemicals. We have a gym, spa and mediation spaces. We talk up these things, as they are tangible for people.”

But such a designation is not without its challenges. Ardabili acknowledges WELL is costlier than other certifications such as LEED, is very strict and there’s no shortage of paperwork and process involved. Buildings also need to be re-certified every three years. 

“For smaller projects, it might not be economical or possible to get WELL-certified,” she says. “With FitWel, whoever owns or builds a building can do it themselves. It’s like an app and you need proof of the features, such as pictures or drawings.”

But even builders not interested in those certifications can take numerous steps to create healthier environments in new homes or condo buildings that are easy and not costly, she says. “You can provide a direct or indirect connection with nature. You might have a window with a nice view, a skylight that brings in natural light or a picture of a flower on the wall. You may not be able to have a water feature in each building, but you can use natural materials and natural colours to connect people to nature.”

Ardabili says staircases can be put close to elevators, and if they are pleasant to walk down—such as with windows, skylights, nice finishes and pictures—they can motivate people to take the stairs. Walking trails and paths in subdivisions or around condo buildings are another easy way to promote physical activity.

“I think health and wellness can be a very good marketing tool,” says Ardabili. “It’s about what a building is doing for us and how it affects our comfort and well-being. If I had a choice between two buildings, one with higher-end finishes but the other with features that promote health and wellness, I think I’d take the one with healthy features.”

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